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The Weekend Before School Starts

by  in Comic News Comment
The Weekend Before School Starts

We are at that point where I am scrambling to get my act together for this year’s after-school Cartooning classes that I teach in the middle schools. Budgets, proposals, lesson plans, and so on.

It’s my least-favorite time of year.

For one thing, by the time September rolls around, I’m invariably pretty well fed up with my summer printshop job and really, really ready to get back to school. And for another, trying to deal with the truly staggering amount of bureaucracy and paperwork, not to mention all the middle-management administrative types who are asking me for it, always puts me in a state of low-level annoyance for the month or so it takes to get all these things done. I understand the necessity, don’t get me wrong. I’m willing to keep my head down and soldier on because it comes with the job. But it nevertheless gets on my nerves, every September.

This year it’s been especially onerous, because I had a couple of things just blow up in my face.

The first was the high school ‘zine class, a sort of sequel intermediate program that would have followed up with my middle-school kids who wanted to keep going somehow. The idea was to do a high-school level magazine that would have incorporated not just comics, but also fiction, photography, illustration, opinion pieces… whatever. My idea was to provide a forum not just for my comics grads but also for the kids that were doing blogs or who were frustrated grads of the middle-school Young Authors program, as well. Same deal as the cartooning classes — I teach form, they do content.

Everyone was very excited about this and I was looking forward to it. Admittedly, I was also a little nervous, but very pleased about the possibilities this opened up for a lot of my 8th-grade Cartooning graduates. I’d even talked to Left Bank Books downtown about giving the class ‘zine some rack space.

I spent a lot of August putting this idea together, in and around the regular work I was doing, even spending a couple of days actually at the high school doing orientation… and then, the afternoon of the day that proposals were due I got a call from the program director that they were “re-prioritizing” (Yes, I know. None of these people speak normal English.) and the “funds were being allocated elsewhere.” Translation– we’re not doing it, thanks but no thanks.

I hung up the phone, cursed long and vociferously, and did some hasty re-prioritizing on my end. I was able to do some juggling and rewrite a couple of other proposals so that the time and resources I’d set aside for the high school program got allocated to Aki Middle School, just under the wire, and those proposals sailed through, thank God. But those of you that may have had to deal with this sort of bureaucratic craziness in the past will appreciate how enormously irritating it is to have something jerked out from under you, forcing last-minute rewriting of massive financial documents (that normally take days to prepare) in a couple of hours, because someone up the chain does something stupid like delay passing on important information because “it’s more appropriately delivered in person.”

Argh. If you will allow me to indulge a small rant —

Trust me, bureaucrats, if it means more time to meet a deadline for the very same organization, in fact for the woman two doors down from you that you know is expecting a similar proposal and who would welcome the extra time your cancellation frees up, using e-mail is okay for delivering that news. Like, the second you know it, not at five PM on the day budgets are due. Grrrr.

…whew. Been holding that in for almost a week now.

Anyway, that’s life in public school. At least it all got done and we start the new school year in a couple of days. New kids, new plans, new ideas for changing it up and making it better.

Which leads me to the other thing that blew up. This one was more personal, and even though the idea didn’t work out, it had an interesting and unexpected dividend.

Here’s how it happened. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t just teach in middle school. I’m also a staff instructor at the Alki Bath House Art studio.

In addition to classes, we also have a number of people that use the place as their studio space, and they often have their work hanging in the gallery. One of our studio artists is a nice lady named Barbara Benedetto. She is one of the best we have, she does beautiful landscapes in watercolor.

What not too many people know is that Barbara also has a background in animation. She was at Filmation Studios for many years, all through the 1970s and 1980s.

If you have any interest in Saturday morning cartoons from those years at all, you’ve seen her work. She did backgrounds and layout for the animated Star Trek, New Adventures of Batman, Tarzan Lord of the Jungle, Fat Albert… all kinds of stuff.

She retired somewhere around 1994 or so, I think… right around the time I was hired to teach at the studio.

We didn’t get to know each other for a couple of years after that. Our paths didn’t cross that often, and of course there was the Great Coffee Controversy that kept me a figure to be dreaded by a great many of the studio ladies.

But after I’d been there a while, Barbara diffidently introduced herself and said she’d be happy to pass on some of her old stuff she had lying around, if I thought I could use it for my students. I said sure, anything she felt like she could part with, and so the following week a bunch of storyboard sheets and blank layout board and such appeared in my cabinet. I left her a nice thank-you note and my students got the blank stock.

Even then, I had only the barest grasp of what she’d done when she was in the business– Barbara is very self-effacing, and tends to brush off talk about her screen credits. All I knew was that she’d done “some animation work.” It wasn’t until very recently that I put it together.

Sarah, our evening monitor, was bugging me about submitting an updated artist’s CV for the studio front desk display, and it was then that I got a look at Barbara’s CV, in the display book that Sarah was trying to assemble. I saw all the shows listed on Barbara’s resume and the penny dropped. Barbara was at Filmation. The last real old-school animators in the country, before it all started going overseas. Christ, she was one of the designers on He-Man and She-Ra. In fact, indirectly, Barbara’s work was partially responsible for my even being at the studio… it was originally the Filmation cartoons that led me to comics that led me to all the rest and resulted in my own teaching career.

Small goddamn world, huh?

And all that Filmation stuff’s coming out on DVD now, too.

I thought it might be fun to show one or two of these cartoons in class with Barbara as a guest.

We could have her do a Q and A, she could talk a little about the process and what it’s like to work in animation… maybe even I could persuade her to do a sort of live commentary on the cartoon as it was playing. The more I thought about it, the cooler it sounded.

This percolated in the back of my head all summer, and as we approached September, I finally made the time to track down Barbara’s phone number. I called her one afternoon and made my pitch.

Her horror was a palpable thing. “Get up in front of people and talk?”

“Well, just answer some questions, maybe,” I said, rather desperately. I could see the whole thing slipping away. “They’re just kids. And you’d be a rock star.”

“Oh I could never do that. I can’t get up in front of people.” It was final.

“Well, it was just a notion,” I said, and sighed. “I just thought it would be a fun thing to do.”

Barbara clearly sensed my disappointment. Gently, she said, “I’m glad you called, though, because it reminded me that I had a bunch of old stuff from those days set aside for you and your students. How should I get it to you?”

“Oh, just drop it at the BathHouse whenever you happen to stop by,” I said, a little absently. I was still being disappointed at seeing my live DVD commentary idea go up in smoke. “Don’t make a special trip or anything. –That’s really nice of you, Barbara,” I added, realizing that I was sounding rather ungracious.

“It’s just taking up space here. Someone might as well get some use out of it.”

I agreed, thanked her again, and that was it.

A month passed. I’d forgotten about it. Then, a couple of weeks ago, Sarah stopped me at the studio one evening before my drawing class and said, “Barbara left this big bag of stuff for you.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s my consolation prize,” I told her, and explained about the DVD showing that wasn’t going to happen. “Where is it?”

“On your shelf in there.” Sarah waved at the supply room.

I retrieved the bag and opened it up. It wasn’t supplies this time. It looked like old file folders of some kind…

“Oh, my God,” I choked out. “Sarah, come look at this. Did you know what all this stuff is?”

Sarah came over from her desk and drew in her breath as sharply as I had. “This… Barbara painted these? What are they?”

“Model sheets. Cels. Background paintings.”

Sarah shook her head in disbelief. “Are these… these must be worth a lot of money.”

“I don’t know. I guess it would depend on the collector market. This stuff from She-Ra, yeah, probably.” We were both speaking in hushed tones despite being alone in the place. Just from awe.

For a while we were silent, just looking through all of it. There was a lot.

Most of the pile appeared to be from She-Ra, but there was also a fair amount of stuff from Archie’s TV Funnies, some Legend of BraveStarr… and a lot of it I didn’t even have a guess.

Finally I muttered, disbelievingly, “I can’t believe she let all this stuff go. This has to be a mistake.”

“There’s a note, too,” Sarah pointed out.

It read: Greg — I couldn’t find the pile of work I’d set aside for you and your students, so I put together this package instead, hope you and the kids can get some use out of it. Best, Barbara.

I took a few photos to put up here for you all, but I assure you this is barely a fraction of what was in the bag.

The pile was an inch and a half thick. Cels, backgrounds, color guides, model sheets, even file copies of old theatre one-sheets for the films Barbara worked on.

So if we couldn’t have Barbara do the guest spot, well, this was a hell of a consolation prize.

The more I think about it, the better I like it. I think it’s better that these paintings will live on as demo pieces in a classroom, enjoyed by the next generation of cartoonists, than for them to be gathering dust in a box in Barbara’s garage. Or even if they ended up framed on the wall of some eBay auction winner. She wanted them used in a classroom and I resolved that would be what I did.

I sent Barbara an effusive thank-you note, but she deserves a more public acknowledgment of her awesomeness. And here it is.


I still hate September prep and all its attendant craziness. But it has to be said — occasionally, you get a nice surprise, too.

See you next week.

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